NR: It is interesting that you felt torn. Looking back at the paintings made during your studies at the Royal College, I am struck by the array of stuff scattered on floors, pinned to walls, held in hands. Your paintings look like collages.
PB: I think that came out of the fact that I was very interested in trompe l’oeil and had seen some beautiful nineteenth-century American trompe l’oeil paintings. Quite often I was trying to achieve a trompe l’oeil effect, a deception of the eye, to make you think it was real. Sometimes people would say ‘Why didn’t you just stick it down? Why did you bother to paint it?’ And I think that’s always been a question and part of the process. Even now I might spend weeks painting something that I could stick down in seconds!
NR: Collage was not on the painting syllabus at the Royal College of Art, was it? Your discovery of collage was extra-curricular.
PB: Yes. It would have been towards the end of my time at the Royal College. I guess it was 1955. I was sharing a flat with Richard Smith and he was friendly with Jasia Reichardt. Jasia’s uncle and aunt were called the Themersons, and they were friends with Kurt Schwitters. Dick knew about that world through Jasia, and he explained to me about Schwitters, and we talked about collage and then we were just playing, making some collages.
NR: Those first collages are small in scale and abstract in nature, often made by the informal piecing together of torn fragments.
PB: I think that was probably because Dick was doing the really early British Abstract Expressionism and I was making my way as a realist, but still I would have had a foot in the abstract camp. All my best friends were Abstract Expressionists – Dick, Robyn Denny and William Green – so that would have accounted for the possibility of me making those early abstract works. And we were probably even sharing materials because when I look at them again, I must have had an old piece of rough hessian sacking and some coloured papers, and mine are done on old bits of cigar boxes, or there is one done on a little white strip of wood – just cut off a skirting board or something like that.